Allied To Race? The U.S.-Korea Alliance And Arms Race – Analysis


By J.J. Suh

The Republic of Korea (South Korea) has increased its defense budget  fourfold in less than twenty years, from 6.6 trillion won in 1990 to  26.6 trillion won in 2008. Last year’s spending represents a twofold  increase from ten years ago; and now the Ministry of National Defense’s  (MND) Defense Reform 2020 projects an annual average increase  of 7.6 percent to 53.3 trillion won by 2020, another doubling over the  next decade. Is Seoul engaged in defense-budget doubling projects every  ten years? Why has South Korea’s military spending increased so much in  recent years, and especially under the liberal governments of the past  ten years? Why does it keep growing? Is there any pattern that we can  discern in South Korea’s military spending?

South Korea has continuously increased its military spending since  2000 at a rate higher than conventional explanations would expect. Its  spending grew 200 percent for the past ten years, higher than would be  warranted by the growth of its economy or government budget over the  same period. South Korea also, notably, raised its defense spending at a  higher rate than North Korea did at a time when Seoul was taking a more  conciliatory policy of engagement, commonly dubbed the “sunshine  policy.” Its defense spending increased ostensibly in response to its  policy goal to build a more autonomous military under the Roh Moo-hyun  administration. But closer examination shows that the U.S.-Korea  alliance in fact strengthened during this period and served as driver of  South Korea’s military transformation. Furthermore, Roh’s predecessor  and successor have, despite their opposite political orientations,  strengthened the military in a way that dovetails with changes in  American strategy and military. This article examines how the South’s  military transformation, in quantity and form, is attributable at least  partly to the pressure that its alliance with the United States keeps on  Seoul to maintain military readiness and interoperability.

This article critically examines three main groups of factors that  affect Seoul’s military expenditure, showing their contributions and  shortcomings. First, it shows that the conventional North Korea threat  explanation is more effective in dealing with the past than with more  recent periods. Second, it argues that internal factors go far toward  explaining some cases of weapons acquisitions. Finally, it suggests that  the quantitative growth and qualitative change of South Korea’s  military are closely correlated with the requirements of alliance  readiness, although the alliance produces countervailing effects on  Seoul’s military spending.

External Threats

According to realist conventional wisdom, a state allocates resources  to the military as a means to provide for survival. Since the minimal  goal of a state is its survival against potential threats, the amount of  its military spending is proportional to the level of threat it faces. A  state in a benign strategic environment may keep its security  expenditure to a minimum so it may allocate more resources to internal  welfare, even if it may not be able to completely eliminate the military  for fear that today’s friends should become tomorrow’s enemies. But a  state facing a clear and present danger is forced to spend whatever is  necessary to defend against an external threat even at a great cost to  internal welfare. While scholars note a dilemma a state faces in  striking an optimal balance between guns and butter, they tend to agree  that the higher the level of threat, ceteris paribus, the  higher the defense spending. Richardson’s classic arms-race model uses  external threat as a driver of arms race because one’s increase in  military capability increases the threat perceived by a potential  adversary, who then increases its own military strength.

This in fact has been the primary explanation of South Korea’s  military spending: that Seoul must defend against the North Korean  threat. The Republic of Korea Army (ROKA), for example, acquired tanks,  M48s, mainly because it feared another blitzkrieg spearheaded by the  North’s tank forces, as in the early stage of the Korean War.  Traumatized by the experience of the war, the ROKA has continued to  upgrade its tanks and has acquired new ones even while building all  manner of defenses against the North’s tanks. The earlier history of  Seoul’s spending growth can be readily explained in terms of its  strategic need to catch up with North Korea, its main threat, which was  enjoying an edge until the early 1970s. Seoul still identifies the North  as a “direct and serious threat” and justifies its military spending in  the same terms: “a country in conflict, such as ours that constantly  faces North Korean threat, must analyze ‘security threats’ first to  determine the military requirement and use the requirement to calculate  the size of the defense expenditure.”

Such a realist perspective, however, fails to explain recent patterns  of military spending by South Korea. Most economic and military  indicators show that South Korea has an edge over North Korea in almost  all measures of power. The size of the military according to a “bean  count” is probably the only indicator in which the North has an  advantage. But North Korea’s quantitative advantage quickly fades when  one takes account of the qualitative disadvantages of operating its  1950s-vintage weapons systems against the state-of-the-art systems of  the South. Most serious analysts conclude that “North Korea never had a  lead over South Korea, and after the 1960s quickly began falling  behind.”

If the North’s threat is the main driver of the South’s military  spending, why didn’t Seoul slow down its budget increase in the 1990s  when its defense budget was seven times that of the North? Why did it  feel compelled to keep increasing its defense budget to widen the gap to  a 10:1 ratio by 2002? In the 1990s North Korea was having serious  difficulties, which turned into a massive starvation and an economic  crisis in the latter half. Its military spending too showed a marginal  increase in the early 1990s, only to fall precipitously in the latter  half. But Seoul continued increasing its military spending as if it were  indifferent to the relative and absolute decline of the North’s power.  The increase is all the more puzzling because it was maintained even as  the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments pursued rapprochement with  the North. The two liberal governments, in fact, tripled South Korea’s  defense budget from 9.9 billion won in 1998 to 28.6 billion won in 2008,  just when Pyongyang was struggling to survive. The South’s continuous  increases in the 1990s and early 21st century defies the  external threat explanation.

Although the overall pattern of the South does not fit the  expectation of the external threat theory, its recent acquisition of  some weapons systems is directly related to the North’s asymmetric  capabilities. Seoul has purchased Patriot missiles (PAC-2) and  built the Aegis ships. Also it has produced Hyunmu 1  and 2, cruise missiles that can hit targets anywhere in North Korea. The  Defense Reform 2020 plans to “greatly expand the capabilities of  surveillance, reconnaissance, precision strike, and interception so that  the North’s asymmetric (nuclear and missile) threats may be intercepted  and eliminated within North Korea.” The Korean Defense Daily (Kukpang  ilbo) projects that once these systems are in place,  South Korea’s military “will acquire the first-strike capability.” The  South’s pursuit of the first-strike capability is at least partially  responsible for the continued increase in its military spending.

Internal Drivers

Korea’s Military-Industrial Complex

The above realist accounts of military spending have had difficulties  in explaining not only the Korean case but also the experiences of the  United States and other countries. Pointing to the failure of realist  theories to explain the pattern of U.S. military expenditures, scholars  have turned to domestic factors as a driver of defense spending. Ever  since President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against the possibility that  a military-industrial complex might wield too great an influence on  military policies, defense contractors and the military have been seen  as behaving according to narrow self-interest to protect their jobs and  businesses. Liberals, who see politics as competition and cooperation  among self-interested individuals and groups, have refined this basic  insight into interest-group theories, sometimes merging them with  theories of political institutions. Many empirical studies have been  done to make sense of the growth of military spending by the United  States or the Soviet Union during the cold war even if they differ on  what specific internal factors caused the growth. While they lack the  ability to account for the overall level and pattern of military  spending, they usually do a good job of delineating a specific arms  purchase or military policy.

Writing about Korea’s defense industry in the mid-1980s, Chung-in  Moon noted “a potential for the gradual formation of a  military-industrial complex,” and by 1990, Kim Yong-nam talked of a  “military-industrial complex of developing-country-type” being formed in  Korea. Whether or not it constitutes a military-industrial complex, a  dense network has developed between the Korean government, the military,  and the defense industry. This network certainly benefits from the  alliance relationship.

The military-industry sector was not to be slighted. In 1991 there  were eighty-four defense contractors designated as “defense industry” by  the Ministry of National Defense, and hundreds of subcontractors, with  total sales of 1.7 trillion won. By 2008, the number of defense  contractors grew only slightly to eighty-nine, and they produced 1,442  defense products, with total sales of 5.5 trillion won. From the  mid-1970s to 1991, military industries had invested a total of 1.2  trillion won in facilities and equipment; if dual-use facilities are  included, the total is 3.3 trillion won. As of 1991, defense contractors  employed 53,000 personnel. Even if the dual industries are excluded,  the number is still about 28,000.

The MND typically allocates one third of its budget for armaments. In  1991 alone, the ministry, through the Defense Logistics Agency, spent  2.9 trillion won on local purchases, of which contracts with Korean  defense firms represented “a substantial proportion.” Foreign purchases  amounted to 590 billion won, of which over 60 percent were FMS (foreign  military sales) purchases from the United States. The government was not  just the sole consumer of military goods, it was also the major source  of funding for defense contractors. In 1996, for example, the MND set up  the “Defense Industry Promotion Fund,” through which it disbursed 52.3  billion won to thirty defense contractors as research and development  (R&D) assistance. In the same year, it also provided defense  contractors with loans worth 30.3 billion won.

A special group of go-betweens has emerged between the defense  contractors and the government to facilitate the exchange of money and  goods. According to a ministry document, 326 retired officers were  employed in defense industries as of 1996. The number, substantial as it  is, does not reveal the full extent of government-industry connections.  Often the connections are quite personal. An officer who had worked on a  particular weapons system would no sooner retire than get hired by the  company that manufactured the very same weapons system. For example, a  retired brigadier general who as chief of the Tank Project Task Force  had overseen the army’s K-1 tank development project was hired upon his  retirement as executive vice president and chief operating officer of  the Defense Systems Division of the Hyundai Precision Industry,  manufacturer of the tanks. Daewoo Heavy Industry, which produces  warships, had as its vice president a retired brigadier general from the  navy headquarters. Samsung Aviation, the primary contractor of the  Korean fighter project, employed a retired major general (former  commander of air force education) as advisor, a retired major general  (former air force logistics commander) as vice president, and a retired  colonel (former air force technology school president) as factory  president.

The practice of “parachuting” retired officers into private sector  positions is not limited to defense contractors. Retired military  officers are also employed en masse by trading companies that  import military equipment and software. As of 1997, there were 339  arms-import agencies, and practically all of them were owned and staffed  by former officers. Although the exact amount of the commissions they  received from imports in recent years is not known, their total  commissions in 1990 alone ran to over $9 million. The amount is likely  to have jumped significantly since 1993 when the Ministry of National  Defense abolished the ceiling on commissions. The increase in weapons  imports later in the 1990s also helped boost the sum of the commissions  reaped by these weapons traders.

The Politics of Choosing Weapons

All in all, under the best of circumstances, these employment  patterns constitute a channel that helps smooth weapons purchase  process. Under shadier circumstances, they degenerate into conduits for  officers and arms dealers to exchange favors. Under the worst  circumstances, they become a “free-for-all,” putting the cart before the  horse: Defense contractors’ business interests take precedence over  defense needs, a not uncommon practice in the military’s weapons  purchase process. Before a service decides on a weapons system, it  prepares an ROC (Required Operating Capabilities) that details  capabilities that the service desires. Only after it completes the ROC  does it begin to examine available weapons systems in order to choose  the one that best satisfies the ROC. That is the process in theory. In  reality, however, when a service of the army sets out to prepare its  ROCs, the first thing it does, more often than not, is to acquire  information on an overseas weapons system. Using that information, the  service then makes up its ROC and ends up selecting the weapons system  on which the ROC was based. And when the military obtains information  from weapons importers, who monopolize technical data on foreign weapons  systems, “there exists a possibility that weapons system selection is  done not by analysis but by the arms agency’s PR activities.”

It is a reality that many  former officials, who had worked in [acquisition] related offices of the   Ministry of National Defense or  in a branch of the armed services, are employed by arms  import agencies and exercise their  direct or indirect influence over ROC, planning, and  implementation.

Defense industries’ interests, under some circumstances, override  pure security considerations in arms procurement decisions, as the  following example of the K-1 upgrading project illustrates. After  successfully developing the K-1 tank by 1988, the South Korean military  began to upgrade it in the early 1990s. The “up-gunning” project, which  included replacing the K-1’s 105 mm. gun with a 120 mm. gun, was  initiated to deal with the T-72 tanks that North Korea was thought to be  poised to acquire from Russia. The upgrading project was imperative,  the MND argued, since the K-1 tank’s 105 mm. gun did not have enough  firepower to penetrate the T-72’s thicker and stronger armor.

But by the mid-1990s, it became increasingly clear that Pyongyang was  not acquiring T-72s and would be unable to purchase them. The country’s  worsening economic situation was causing massive starvation, and Moscow  was reluctant to sell the tanks to the North because it wanted to  expand ties with the South. Ironically it was the South, not the North,  that received Russia’s most sophisticated tanks, the T-80Us, in the  mid-1990s. By the end of the decade, North Korea had not received a  single T-72, and certainly no T-80s, and its tank stock consisted  largely of 1950s models that the K-1’s 105 mm. guns could easily  destroy. Nonetheless, the up-gunning project proceeded as if the absence  of T-72s in the North’s arsenal did not matter. The up-gunning and  upgrading of a K-1 to a K-1 A-1 was not driven so much by military need  as by Hyundai Precision Industry, which faced the problem of idling its  tank production facilities after completing its order of K-1 tanks.  Building on this momentum, the army is slated to roll out an even newer  model, K-2, in 2016 and round out the armor modernization with 950 K-2  PIP’s by 2020.

Another example of industry interests overriding security  considerations was provided by Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil’s call in May  1999 for more funding to keep the F-16 fighter production lines “warm.”  The Korean Fighter Program (KFP) was scheduled to terminate at the end  of 1999 when all of the planned 120 F-16s were to have been assembled,  which would close down production lines. Defense contractors involved in  the KFP, therefore, had an interest in getting more orders. The  Aerospace Industry Development Policy Board, established in 1990 to  guide policy for Korea’s nascent aircraft industry, held its second  meeting in April 1999 to discuss the Basic Development Plan for  Aerospace Industry. The Ministry of National Defense was at loggerheads  with the Ministry of Industry and Resources (MIR) over the plan. The  MND, reflecting the air force’s view, argued for termination of the KFP  and an early start of the KTX project (a supersonic trainer production  program), whereas the MIR, representing the interests of the aircraft  consortium led by Samsung Avionics, advocated an extension of the KFP.  In the end, the Aerospace Industry Development Policy Board sided with  the MIR, reflecting the degree to which economic interests, born out of  military considerations, were now overshadowing national-security  concerns in weapons procurement decisions. As one anonymous air force  officer told the Associated Press, “some cabinet ministers were mixing  national defense with business interests.”

The above cases illustrate the gray area between national security  and economic interest. But there is an even less transparent sector of  this military-industrial network that mixes weapons deals with side  payments. William Hartung graphically details an aspect of this sector  in his description of Northrop Grumman’s failed attempt to sell F-20 Tigersharks to South Korea. Featuring a host of colorful characters—mob leader  “Wheelchair” Kang, who was wheelchair-bound after a gang feud; “Pistol”  Park, who was known for his “pistolmanship” and close friendship with  Korea’s President Chun Doo-hwan; and Northrop’s chairman and CEO, Tom  Jones—the fiasco involved elaborate and illegal schemes to exchange  millions of dollars for a contract. It is impossible to ascertain the  extent of this dark sector, which spanned the Pacific and involved  government officials, military officers, and businessmen. Suffice it to  note that every major weapon purchase or production contract to date has  been accompanied by charges of corruption. The magnitude of this  corruption was reflected in the fact that Korea’s force modernization  effort begun in 1974 was so tainted with massive scandals that the  Ministry of National Defense felt compelled to change the name from the  Yulgok Program to the Force Improvement Program (FIP).

The usefulness of these explanations, however, is limited. The  military and defense contractors in South Korea undoubtedly have a  selfish interest to protect, if not promote, their own welfare, and they  have taken advantage of the democratic opening to pursue their  self-interest. But those with interests in keeping the defense budget as  high as possible represent a small segment of the state and society  involved in national security policy making. As of 2008, the eighty-nine  companies designated as the “defense industry” registered total sales  of 5.5 trillion won, only 7 percent of the total sales of the companies  and less than 1 percent of Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP). Also,  though the Ministry of National Defense is one of the largest  bureaucratic bodies in the Korean government, only a small number of its  officials handle acquisitions, and their narrow self-interest is  counterbalanced by institutional monitoring and audit. Hence, while  internal drivers may account for, or contribute to, individual cases,  they fall short of explaining the overall size of the defense budget.  Furthermore, democratization serves as a double-edged sword. On the one  hand, it creates an opening for private interests to influence  government decision-making. But on the other hand, it makes the  government more subject to competing demands and increasing oversight.

Alliance as a Supplement

Other scholars have elaborated on the baseline realist account to  take into consideration the effect that a military alliance has on a  country’s defense budget. Their studies usually note that an alliance  has a dampening effect because it aggregates resources. Several scholars  explain alliance formation in terms of the lowest cost choice between  arms and alliance on the basis of the assumption that an alliance  reduces one’s military cost by replacing at least some of one’s own  defense expenditures.

There are two ways to assess the contribution that a country makes to  its ally’s defense, although neither is an easy or perfect measure. One  can either calculate the resources allocated for the ally’s defense or,  counterfactually, estimate the marginal increase in the resources that  the ally would have to spend if it lost the country’s support. The  former is better at counting tangibles such as the number of soldiers  and weapons systems deployed in or for the ally, and aggregate them to  calculate the total support the country gives to its ally. While it may  be easier to count the tangibles, the intangible contributions that a  country makes to its ally’s defense may be more important and expensive  in some cases. Either way, the total defense contribution is seen as  reducing the ally’s security burden by that amount.

Using the first yardstick, we may estimate the total sum that the  United States expends to support South Korea’s defense. One rudimentary  estimate would take the number of American soldiers stationed in Korea  as an indicator of the proportional slice of the U.S. defense budget if  indirect costs, such as expenses on strategic forces and R&D, can be  assumed to proportionately support each soldier. According to one  estimate, the combined U.S.-South Korea expenditure totaled about $12  billion in 1986. Since South Korea alone spent approximately $5 billion  that year, Washington contributed about $7 billion worth of force.  Others estimate that one third of the U.S. defense budget goes to its  forces in Asia-Pacific and therefore, by extension, to what the United  States would deploy in case of a contingency in Korea. If the cost is  limited to the in-country expenses incurred by U.S. forces deployed in  South Korea, however, the amount is a more limited $1.2 billion (as of  2004), the figure used by the allied governments to figure out Seoul’s  “host nation support.”

Using the second, more indirect measure is more complicated for it  involves counterfactual estimates. One needs to estimate the marginal  increase in Seoul’s defense expenditure if the alliance were terminated.  This in turn involves assessing two kinds of costs. First, if the  alliance were terminated and the American military withdrawn, Korea  would first have to fill the void with its own forces at its own cost.  Some 40,000 American soldiers would have to be replaced with Koreans,  and all the facilities manned by Americans would have to be managed by  Koreans. These extra personnel would have to be paid, and the operating  costs of the facilities would have to be borne by Seoul. This is exactly  the argument that the Ministry of National Defense made in its defense  of the alliance:

The U.S. Forces in Korea help  us [Koreans] reduce our defense spending, which contributes  to our continued economic development.  If we take into account all the equipment and  materials that the USFK maintains in-country as well as  the several billion dollars it spends  on  maintenance and operations, its opportunity cost is tremendous. If the  USFK should be  withdrawn, it  would take an astronomical amount of additional defense expenditures to  compensate for its absence.

Second, if the alliance were terminated, it could potentially disrupt  the flow of parts and materials, causing an incalculable disaster in  equipment maintenance and production that might even compromise the ROK  army’s readiness. The work of many of Korea’s defense contractors would  grind to a halt as Korea failed to obtain necessary parts. Many U.S.  contractors would lose customers. These secondary costs are difficult to  estimate but are frequently used as a reason for maintaining the  alliance. Typifying such justifications, Hwang Tong-Jun, Director of the  Weapons Systems Research Center, has argued that, despite the need to  diversify the sources of weapons imports, “we need to focus on our  cooperation with the U.S., which has developed over the past 20 years  and which has sustained weapons interoperability.”

While there is no dispute about the contributions that the United  States has made to Korea’s defense, it is analytically difficult to show  that its contributions have produced a replacement effect, not only  because its contributions serve U.S. strategic needs but also because  Korea’s military spending grew even when Washington’s security  commitment remained constant or grew. In the 1950s and 1960s, Washington  provided economic and military assistance—especially so-called  counterpart funding—not just as a supplement but also as an inducement  for Seoul to raise the size of the military and defense budget. Even as  President Richard Nixon withdrew one division from South Korea, he  increased other types of defense assistance to compensate for the  decrease in Korea’s defense readiness that might result from the force  reduction. President Jimmy Carter threatened to cut U.S. aid if Seoul  did not go along with his policy, but he ended up giving aid without any  troop withdrawal. Through the 1970s, President Park Chung-hee, fearing  American withdrawal, launched an ambitious program to build Korea’s  independent military capability. But in the 1980s, when President Ronald  Reagan made unqualified commitment to South Korea’s defense, President  Chun Doo-hwan still went ahead with the military modernization program.  In other words, South Korea kept beefing up its military regardless of  the level of American support.

This, in turn, raises the question about the degree to which U.S.  Forces in Korea (USFK) needs to be replaced in order to maintain a  strategic balance against the North Korean military. The Roh Moo-hyun  government justified some of its new weapons development programs in  terms of the need to substitute for the U.S. capabilities that would be  withdrawn by 2012 when wartime operational control will be transferred  to the ROKA, but it is at least questionable whether all of those  capabilities need to be acquired by South Korea. For example, the  Kumgang and Paektu Projects would, upon their completion, give the ROKA  the ability to monitor North Korea’s military activities almost anywhere  in the country. Given that the North Korean military has only  rudimentary reconnaissance and surveillance capability, any additional  high-tech surveillance systems to replace what the United States  currently provides could potentially be overkill. The ROKA maintains  such a high force-to-space ratio that even without the benefits of the  high-tech systems, it could block any blitzkrieg attempt by the North.  Thus, while the U.S. military adds to the South’s capability, some of  its contribution may be superfluous, especially given that Seoul is  already enjoying military advantages over Pyongyang. The alliance’s  supplementary effect, therefore, will be smaller than it seems at first.

Alliance as a Driver

The Costs of Interoperability

While a military alliance as a tool of pulling security resources  together reduces the defense burden for each ally, there are at least  four reasons why an alliance may increase each member’s defense  spending. First, the need to keep allied militaries interoperable  generates pressure to allocate resources to meet the need for hardware,  software, and human resources. Second, the political need to keep an  ally happy can lead to a provision of military aid or to the sale or  purchase of weapons or commercial goods. Third, a country may be  persuaded to maintain a level of force by its fear of abandonment by its  ally at a time of crisis. “Abandonment fears” lead the allies to invest  in making their links as unbreakable as possible. Finally, a country  may be dragged into a conflict in which its ally is involved.  “Entrapment fears” reduce, if not counterbalance, the supplementary  effect of the alliance to the extent that allies develop their  capabilities independent of the alliance. Entrapment, of course, incurs  direct costs of fighting as well as indirect costs of supporting the  ally.
It is not easy or cheap to keep modern allied militaries  interoperable, for interoperability requirements lead to three types of  durable and expensive investments. First, allies need, at a minimum, to  be able to identify each other, so as to minimize friendly fire and to  coordinate their exercises and operations. Their weapons systems and  platforms must be designed and produced to ensure interoperability  between the allies’ assets. With further military integration, they need  to ensure that both can rely on each other’s ammunition and POL  (petroleum, oil, and lubricants). Airports, ports, roads, and railroads  may need be configured and maintained in order to enable an ally’s  operation.

Second, the allied militaries need to customize the way allied  militaries use equipment and manpower to achieve their joint objectives.  The processes that require investment include consultation and  coordination mechanisms, military planning, command structure, and the  operation of combined forces and combined exercises. Alliance military  practices are guided and governed by a host of rules, ranging from  treaties and agreements to domestic laws and regulations, in addition to  the standard operating procedures (SOPs) and rules of engagement that  apply to most military activities. This software infrastructure  represents another set of expenditures that allies make to carry out  alliance obligations.

Third, costs are incurred by the need to move human assets in teams  or train them to work together. Allies make a durable investment in  alliance personnel so that they “learn by doing” or “learn on the job”  about their allied partners, as well as about the alliance-specific  hardware and software infrastructure. Alliance practices typically  involve training about allies, combined exercises, and exchange of  officers. Allies also invest resources to educate soldiers about the  history, culture, and politics of the ally as well as to teach at least  some of them the ally’s language.

If the interoperability requirements lead to these three kinds of  investment, which add to a country’s defense spending, allies also have  political needs to meet. On the one hand, the wealthier ally bears the  burden of helping out its ally by providing military or economic  assistance that will enhance the ally’s strength. The more powerful ally  may come under pressure to transfer weapons systems to an ally free of  charge or at a “friendly” rate. These pressures were particularly strong  during the cold war when the two superpowers competed with each other  for allies. But even afterward, the strategic circumstances of, for  instance, the global war on terrorism, have generated a need to invest  in reconstructing the ally’s economy or military. On the other hand, the  weaker of the two may purchase its ally’s weapons systems or other  goods as a way to signal its commitment to the alliance or buy the  ally’s interest. The powerful give what they can, and the weaker buy  what they must, to paraphrase Thucydides.

Operating from Fear

These political needs are, in turn, grounded in the contradictory  fears that plague alliances, and they diminish the supplementary effect  on allies’ defense burden. The literature on military alliances notes  that while alliances are designed to help the allies meet their  partner’s security needs by sharing defense burdens, they face two kinds  of fears that cannot be completely removed. On the one hand, a country  fears that it might be abandoned by its allies precisely when its  security is threatened, because its allies may judge it too costly to  save it from the threat. On the other hand, a country worries that it  might get dragged, by its alliance commitment, into a conflict in which  its allies are embroiled, even if it does not want to get involved. The  twin fears of abandonment and entrapment lead allies to take remedial  action, adding to their military spending, although an action taken to  allay one fear is bound to exacerbate the other: Tightening the  alliance, or “chain-ganging,” reduces the abandonment fear at the risk  of raising the entrapment fear, whereas loosening alliance commitments  diminishes the danger of entrapment at the cost of a higher possibility  of abandonment. These contradictory fears constitute a dilemma that  leads allied partners to spend on security one way or another.
Abandonment fear, which dampens one’s expectation of allied  contributions, serves as a constant reminder that one must maintain at  least a minimal ability to provide for one’s own security no matter how  trustworthy the ally might currently be. Changes in domestic politics or  international circumstances may alter the ally’s calculation tomorrow,  and the ally will betray the alliance if the benefits of doing so  outweigh those of honoring the commitment. A state’s predilection to  shift its defense burden to an ally, therefore, is counterbalanced by  its fear of abandonment.

Abandonment fear may do more than merely dampen the supplementary  effect of an alliance. The more strongly a state fears abandonment, the  more likely it is to explore ways to reduce the likelihood of  abandonment. Such “chain-ganging” can take various forms. It can provide  services that its ally desires, as for example when President Park  dispatched two divisions of the Korean military to Vietnam to help out  the United States. It may seek to influence the opinion of decision  makers with economic assistance or purchase orders. It may even try  lobbying as a last resort, as the Koreagate scandal revealed.

Entrapment fear itself may not directly increase defense spending  unless an alliance is already so entrenched with a high level of  interoperability that loosening the alliance involves undoing at least  some of the interoperable features. But entrapment fear can lead to side  payments if one’s “buck passing” deepens the other’s abandonment fear  so much that the abandonment fear must be addressed, as, for example,  when the Eisenhower administration agreed to sign the Mutual Defense  Treaty with President Syngman Rhee as a way to end its entrapment in the  Korean War. President Nixon tried to reduce the U.S. defense burden and  entrapment in Asia by withdrawing some forces from the region, but he  ended up agreeing to increase military assistance to allay Seoul’s  security concerns.

Entrapment itself can be highly costly, as Jefferson said when he  warned the neophyte republic against “entanglement” in costly European  wars. Despite the warning, the United States has been entrapped in its  allies’ or friends’ wars at a great cost to itself. While President Park  voluntarily dispatched the Korean military to Vietnam out of political  and economic considerations, President Roh Moo-hyun came under pressure  from the George W. Bush administration to contribute to the U.S. war in  Iraq and later Afghanistan. In 1994, President Kim Young-sam found  himself caught in the uncomfortable position of having to deal with the  likelihood that the United States might use its military against North  Korea’s nuclear facilities in Yongbyun.
States have used various measures to address the contradictory fears  associated with alliances but have found no satisfactory solution that  can allay both fears at the same time. The revolution in military  affairs (RMA) pursued by the Bush administration is perhaps unique in  simultaneously exacerbating both of these fears inherent in an alliance  relationship, even though part of its goal was to allay them. The  military transformation has sought to leverage new technological  developments to maximize the mobility as well as the accuracy and  lethality of the U.S. military. Its emphasis on mobility frees the  forces from a fixed battle position and enables them to be rapidly  deployed to distant places, making it possible to move U.S. bases out of  inhospitable or potentially dangerous areas. While this may reduce  American fears of entrapment, it increases their allies’ concerns about  abandonment. At the same time, the newly acquired U.S. mobility, which  may reduce American fears of abandonment, makes it potentially more  likely that American allies can be involuntarily drawn into a conflict  in which the United States is engaged, either because the U.S. military  is deployed from allied bases or because U.S. forces are brought in from  afar, dragging the ally into the conflict.

Not only does the military transformation shift the burden of the  twin fears to allies, it also adds a new challenge to keep up with  America’s transformation so that allied militaries might operate  seamlessly together. As the U.S. military leapfrogs into a 21st-century  high-tech force equipped with state-of-the-art weapons systems, its  allied militaries come under pressure to follow suit or modernize their  forces enough to maintain interoperability with the U.S. military. The  U.S. military’s adoption of network-centric warfare and its emphasis on  jointness drive allied militaries to train their forces about the new  ways of fighting lest they have difficulties working with the new U.S.  forces.

The MND’s Defense Reform 2020 Basic Plan notes that “the  Korean military faces the requirement to transform into a futuristic  force structure because of revolutionary changes in the war-fighting  paradigm triggered by the development of information-science  technology.” To effectively prepare for the future warfare, the MND is  emphasizing the concepts of “jointness” and Network Centric Warfare, the  very core concepts highlighted by the U.S. military transformation. A  majority of force improvements envisioned by the Defense Reform 2020 are  driven by these concepts. The Korean military is, for example, slated  to acquire the following: satellites, airborne early warning control  system, C4I, K series battle tanks, Aegis ships, F-15K/F-X  fighters, aerial refueling aircraft, and precision guided missiles.  These changes are driven by the agreement that Seoul’s and Washington’s  militaries made in 2003: “the ROK will develop and transform its own  military capabilities in reference to US military transformation.”

South Korea had a high level of entrapment fear when the Bush  administration asked Seoul to contribute to the wars in Iraq and  Afghanistan. Its fear was brought home when a Korean man, Kim Sŏnil, was  kidnapped and executed in Iraq in 2004. But it was the military  transformation and its attendant alliance transformation that created a  serious debate about entrapment. As the U.S. military was being  transformed into rapid deployment forces, some feared that the  “strategic flexibility” adopted by the U.S.-ROK alliance could allow  U.S. forces deployed in Korea to be deployed to other places, such as  China, dragging South Korea into a conflict it did not desire.

At the same time, South Korea’s abandonment fear is increasing as the  alliance goes through a transformation. Wartime operational control is  scheduled to be returned to the ROKA by 2012, and the Combined Forces  Command (CFC) to be disbanded by the same time, according to the  agreement signed in February 2007. The USFK is being moved away from  frontline positions to rear areas—Osan and Daegu—while its overall size  is shrinking. These changes are creating a fear among some Koreans,  particularly conservatives, that Washington might abandon Korea at a  time of crisis.

The twin fears of entrapment and abandonment are visible in the  defense reform plan for 2020. On the one hand, in order to reduce  entrapment fears, the MND emphasizes the need to develop an independent  defense capability: “it is now more urgent than anytime before that we  must develop our own capability to defend ourselves in order to ensure  our survival.” To develop the capability, it is restructuring the ROKA’s  command control system and acquiring the weapons systems necessary for  the ROKA’s independent command control.
On the other hand, in order to address the abandonment fears, the  ministry is working with the Pentagon to develop new coordinating  mechanisms. It is also highlighting the need to make concentrated  investments early on. Its urgent call for an “early harvest” in reality  translates into acquiring existing U.S. weapons systems such as C4I  systems, AWACS (airborne warning and control system), and theater  operation command control systems, because of the interoperability built  into the Korean military.

Also, the alliance produced pressure on Korea to emulate the trend in  the ally’s weapons R&D, since the Korean army needed to ensure that  its weapons systems and doctrines remained interoperable with those of  its ally in the future. Korean weapons researchers and officers,  therefore, constantly looked to their American counterparts to keep up  with their research. Just as the RMA was driving military R&D in the  United States in the 1990s, it was also starting to affect Korea’s  debate on the future of its arms industry. Specifically exploring  Korea’s possible response to the American debate on the RMA, No Hun and I  Chae-Uk argued that “it is natural that the Korean military  follows American trends in the RMA and uses them as a base to explore  Korea’s own way of RMA.” Weapons research was developing a life of its  own, being driven more by its own needs or by developments in the ally’s  weapons research than by the actual security environment.


In the end, South Korea’s defense expenditure is determined by a  combination of all the factors discussed in this article. North Korea’s  strategic threat remains the overwhelming rationale, although it alone  cannot explain the South’s disproportionately high spending relative to  that of the North. Domestic interests go a long way toward accounting  for the decision to purchase weapons systems whose strategic utility,  vis-à-vis the North Korean military, is dubious. The alliance produces  countervailing effects on Seoul’s defense expenditure: It exerts a  downward pressure by supplementing the ROKA, but it creates various  interests that add to Seoul’s spending. While South Korea’s military  expenditure probably represents the sum of these forces, the alliance  figures prominently as a central factor that reflects the overall size  of Seoul’s military spending and the shape of its military  transformation.

Furthermore, it is notable that the alliance’s effects are  expansionary in recent years. First, Seoul bears some of the direct and  indirect cost of keeping U.S. forces in Korea, and its share of the  burden has gone up in recent years. It has provided land, facilities,  and services, as well as tax breaks, an indirect cost that amounted to  $773 million in 2000 alone. Beginning in 1991 when it signed the Special  Measures Agreement, South Korea has increased its share of the direct  cost from 107.3 billion won to 741.5 billion won in 2008. If one adds  the cost to relocate the USFK headquarters at Yongsan and consolidate  other U.S. bases in Osan, Seoul’s total burden quickly increases. As  Seoul’s capability grows, so does its contribution to the alliance cost.  Furthermore, Washington’s expenses go up even as Seoul’s share of  in-country costs increases because the U.S. military is going through an  expensive transformation. Because the size of the alliance pie grows as  a result, neither ally’s increased contribution replaces or reduces the  other’s burden.

Second, not only is the size of the alliance pie expanding; the  alliance’s area of operation is growing. As early as 2000, the two  allies agreed that “the alliance will serve to maintain peace and  stability in Northeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole even  after the immediate threat to stability has receded on the Korean  peninsula.” They have since extended their bilateral logistical support  to a global level so that South Korea’s military might provide  logistical support to U.S. forces operating, for example, in Central  Asia. They have also agreed to the “strategic flexibility of the U.S.  forces based in South Korea,” opening the door to the possibility that  American forces could be projected from South Korea to anywhere outside  the peninsula. The expansion has furthermore gotten the Korean military  involved in such far-flung conflicts as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and  Somalia.

Finally, Seoul’s military spending expands at least partly to acquire  capabilities necessary for out-of-area operations. The Force  Improvement Plan (FIP), originally conceived to expand South Korean  military capability in response to the perceived superiority of the  North, in recent years has reflected a “strategic vision” that looks  beyond the North-South rivalry to plan for an eventually unified Korea’s  regional role. Reflecting such a vision, the Ministry of National  Defense is making efforts to develop a more “balanced” force, with  increased emphasis on maritime and air capabilities that would find  limited application in an intra-Korean conflict. The navy is acquiring a  blue sea capability, while the air force is being equipped with  longer-range aircraft and aerial refueling planes. While it is at least  debatable that Korea has an immediate need to prepare for an eventual  conflict with Japan or China, it is notable that Seoul’s strategic  vision requires mostly U.S. weapons systems. The MND favors American  missiles, the air force is purchasing American F-15Ks, the army is  repeating the U.S. argument about the “military transformation,” and the  navy is operating American-style Aegis-class destroyers. The  ROKA is forging ahead toward “network-centric warfare.” So the alliance  looms large even as South Korea busily prepares for strategic  uncertainty in the region.

This essay was originally published in a special issue of Asian  Perspective on the arms race in Northeast Asia, edited by John Feffer and in FPIF


Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) is a “Think Tank Without Walls” connecting the research and action of more than 600 scholars, advocates, and activists seeking to make the United States a more responsible global partner. It is a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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